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Crime Spree in Berkeley


by David Rheem Jarrett

Tom Pickering is a tough, middle-aged man with a philandering wife and a broken tooth. He uses a gun to get rid of the philandering wife. The tooth stays.

Tom (and the reader) only knows that the wife philanders because we jump for the only time in the novel into her head just before that head is scrambled by Tom’s bullet. That feels like cheating, especially since we later get confirmation of her affair via her lover.

Pickering's motive for killing his wife is that she is maybe sleeping around AND she might take half his money in a divorce settlement. Maybe that's wrong, but at least we can see he has self-preservation in mind. His motivation to kill her lover (and how he determines the guy—who he has never met—to be a lover is never explained) is pure vindictiveness. Vindictiveness is the only motivation for a couple other murders he will commit.

Pickering’s a jerk, but since we see much of the early action through his eyes, we wonder if the author advocates his intolerant worldview. Fortunately, the book soon expands to embrace other characters and other viewpoints.

Besides Pickering, we get lengthy vignettes of his growing number of victims as well as the two cops handling his case. Tess Brogan and Mike Kingman, rather than the detectives we see in most crime dramas, are refreshingly uniformed. Their story, and their pending romance, becomes as much the focus of the book as Pickering's murders. A romance between two partners is hardly professional, but the heart wants what it wants, right?

When the police make the connection between the two murders, the reader is told about this in an overview. It would have been far more interesting if we had seen the process shown in dialog between the cops. Show 'em, don't tell 'em.

Pickering's later torture of the real estate developer might be fun—if we had seen the agent in action, cheating everyone to his heart's content. As it is, we are only told he did these things in an overview, so the act comes off as a glorification of torture. The author does this just a bit too often and it's annoying.

The writing is not bad but could be a bit tighter in places. Showing, rather than telling, would help. It has very few of the typos, misspellings, and homonyms I've been seeing recently in other books.

I did have problems with a few lines, like when Officer Kingman is at a family dinner: “Today we helped at what seems to be the crime scene, and then had go back and get some DNA samples from the woman’s house and from her husband.” First, a cop should not be talking about an open case, even with his parents. And they should know better than to ask. Secondly, “Today we helped...” That's worded like a little kid after being asked what he did at school that day.

Also, would a patrol officer throw up at the sight of a corpse? Those guys deal with vehicle accidents every day and have the job of scraping the pieces off the road. A rookie might upchuck, but not a seasoned veteran.

Finally, our heroes the police take an awful long time to take action when they’ve long since connected Pickering to the killing spree. One does not need probable cause to bring someone in for questioning or simply following him before he kills again. Just because the police can't get a conviction doesn't mean they're going to let him walk off.

This is a shame because there are some wild surprises about all the characters. Even when the writing is flat, the story moves. And a refreshing change of pace is the relationship that develops between Pickering and one of his potential victims, Willoughby. They both evolve as characters due to their encounter.

Setting the book in and around Berkeley, California was an especial treat for me, as I grew up in the East Bay. My old home town of El Sobrante is even mentioned. And San Pablo Dam Road? Dam! I have no idea how many times I walked the Richmond Pier with my dad as a kid. Sather Tower also plays a part, along with the UC Berkeley campus, and all those East Indian restaurants along Shadduck Avenue, and end even the Moth Ball Fleet!

The ending comes off a bit rushed but believable and satisfying. With relatively few reservations, I would recommend “Last Straw”. The good definitely outweighs the bad.

I'd give it 4 stars out of 5. The story is good but dropping into so many characters' heads, rather than showing their actions, knocks it down. And the Russian word for yes is “da” not “ja”.

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